YouTube, a new technology that brings an as-it-happens social aspect to Google's video-sharing site, shows promise but suffers shortcomings.
RealTime has the potential to bring some of the communal aspects of TV to the more solitary phenomenon of online video. With it, a toolbar across the bottom of a YouTube page shows you what your friends are watching and commenting on, shows them what you're up to, and pops up invitations from friends who want you to see something. It's an opt-in service, and you can temporarily go into a private mode, so you can still close the curtains if you want.
RealTime launched publicly on Wednesday through an invitation-only viral marketing campaign, with each invitee getting 25 invitations to dole out. Unfortunately for Google, that's where my first problems arrived.
People love to share amusing videos on YouTube by e-mail, Twitter, blogs, and instant messaging, so it might appear at first blush that YouTube is ripe for an injection of social activity.
The YouTube social network
The YouTube social life largely happens outside YouTube itself today, but RealTime tries to bring that activity into YouTube's domain.
YouTube has its own infrastructure for granting friend status to other YouTube members, sending messages to people, and tracking what they're up to. YouTube RealTime relies on that infrastructure.
So the first thing you're going to have to do to make it useful is figure out how to use it and build yourself a whole new social network. Perhaps you have one already on hand, but nobody I know does, and a lot of people I know already have social-network invitation fatigue.
If you do get a YouTube RealTime invitation from some Net hipster who's already a friend, you'll soon have 25 invitations of your own to extend, but before you can use them, you'll have to send out the necessary friend requests. It's unfortunate that Google couldn't take advantage of social graph information already established at Gmail, Orkut, Picasa, Google profiles, or wherever else Google users already have painstakingly built them up.
However, once people are your friends, you can invite them to use RealTime; the invitation is actually more of a notification that the feature will be enabled when they next log in to the YouTube. When they do so, the RealTime toolbar will appear on the bottom of their YouTube pages.
Even after I sorted out my confusion about the differences between inviting people to be my YouTube friends vs my RealTime friends, I had some problems Wednesday with the service. At times people I knew to be online at YouTube showed to be otherwise. However, the problem passed as the day wore on.
This brings me to my second letdown with the service. RealTime didn't really make using YouTube any different for me. It didn't make me realize, "Oh, so that's what I've been missing about YouTube!"
I'm as big a fan of viral videos as anyone, and I'm accustomed to sending the latest finds individually to a few select friends by e-mail or IM or broadly over Twitter or maybe even a blog post. Perhaps if I had dedicated moments of exploring videos collectively with my friends RealTime would be more relevant, but for now, those existing communication channels work fine and don't require that my friends actually be logged into YouTube or included in my social network there.
But what's next? Google doubtless isn't done with YouTube RealTime, though, and I could see this being different and perhaps more compelling for some YouTube users.
Here's one idea: unify it with Gmail's IM and video chat technology so you could communicate in other ways besides just messages that "Stephen has shared a video with you."
Here's another: a split-screen interface that shows thumbnails of the actual videos your friends are watching. Clicking on one puts it front and center in the YouTube interface.
So despite my lukewarm reaction to the service overall, I could be persuaded to come around if Google makes something more revolutionary out of it.